When John Waters Got Arrested at Johns Hopkins

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Every interview with John Waters has the potential to be magnificent–the guy is just smart, funny, and forthright–but I have to say that this recent Q&A with Johns Hopkins’s Bret McCabe is one of the best.

McCabe gets Waters to spin some stories about hitchhiking (and picking up hitchhikers) in Baltimore:

The last time I saw one in Baltimore, I picked him up. It was the daytime on Eastern Avenue, and I was there innocently—Eastern Avenue didn’t used to be an innocent place to pick up hitchhikers, believe me. And he got in the car and immediately started huffing glue. And I said, “Just make yourself comfortable.” He offered me some. I said no—it wasn’t a Friday night, it was a Tuesday morning or something. If I’m going to huff glue in my 60s, it ain’t going to be on a weekday morning. It would have to be a really bad night, late.

How he avoided trouble with the cops on his hitchhiking trip across the country:
I didn’t look that threatening. And when I would see a cop I had a sign that said “writing hitchhiking book.” That totally did not work to get people to pick you up, but it worked for cops because they didn’t want to get involved in that. And the one [cop] that picked me up ran my name to see if I had any warrants. That was the furthest that went. I had my fame kit, and he looked through that, didn’t say anything, and finally said, “Well, it doesn’t say you’re a professional hitchhiker.” So I knew he had a sense of humor. He was very nice.

And how he got arrested on the Johns Hopkins campus in the late 1960s:
What happened was we were filming a scene in Mondo Trasho and we didn’t ask for permission. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a location scout. I figured it was Sunday morning, the students will be asleep. So we just went there. And I can picture right where it is. It’s where the old bookshop used to be, that little street that isn’t even there anymore. And a security guard saw us and thought we were filming a porn movie, so he called the police. The cops raided the set and they busted all of us, but not Divine. He got away. And he was in a red 1959 Cadillac Eldorado convertible with the top down and a gold lame toreador outfit with a nude man in the car—in November. And they couldn’t catch him.

And Hopkins, I think, later was kind of mortified that this even happened because they just didn’t know. My father was really mortified because he went to Hopkins and it was a nude man, not a nude woman. He was so furious and mortified. I remember I had to go show my early movies to the DA, and they all thought they were going to see porn movies or something. And it was the most innocent, avant-garde, out-of-focus, jumpy cut movie. They were so disappointed.

When I was in jail, and it was the little prison in Hampden, I just called the ACLU and it happened to be [future Baltimore Circuit Court Judge] Elsbeth Bothe who answered the phone, and she got a famous radical Baltimore attorney to defend us. It was national news, totally unplanned. It was on the cover of Variety. And the judge read to us, “Go behind the door and sin no more”—it became a media joke, the whole thing.

Mark Isherwood, who played the nude hitchhiker, just died this year. I had just heard that, and it was really sad because I remember that day and I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. But I don’t remember if the Hopkins guard was there to testify—it was all a blur. I don’t remember the trauma of my obscenity trial. Now I can look back on it and laugh.

 



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